Research has indicated that there are currently around 20 million Twitter users in the UK. Whilst the majority of users fall into the 18-29 age group, there are still a large proportion of 30-49 year olds and 50-61 year olds using Twitter or at least reading posts on the platform. This would suggest that Twitter presents an effective means of communication across a wide audience.
The Benefits of Twitter for Patients and Practices
For GP practices, Twitter has the ability to provide a valuable platform to engage with patients, both prospective and existing. With correct and consistent handling, the use of Twitter by a GP practice will demonstrate openness to communicating with patients in a way they are familiar with and feel comfortable with.
In today's era of multi-channel communication and marketing, it is incredibly important to offer a variety of contact channels. Twitter makes it possible for the GP practice to reach out to patients and keep them up to date - in real time - about things that are new, important and things that are changing.
Issuing seasonal reminders such as travel and flu jab clinics; announcing changes to surgery opening hours; promoting new ways to get in touch, as well as things like enticing new Patient Participation Group members are all possible with Twitter. Practices that make use of secure online forms to enable patients to undertake tasks such as updating clinical records, changing contact details or registering with a GP will also be able to promote these forms by posting a direct link to them.
The Things GP Practices Should Consider Before Starting to use Twitter
Dedication: Whilst Twitter offers an array of opportunities for the GP practice, it is important to appreciate that it does take dedication to keep it running once you have committed to it. Twitter is a platform designed around engagement, which means it is a two-way channel. You would not dream of leaving a telephone unanswered or ignoring a patient at the reception desk, and by the same token, it would be considered equally as insulting for a Tweeted enquiry or comment to be disregarded.
Therefore, before you go ahead and set up your GP practice Twitter account, you should make sure you are fully committed to running it and dealing with interactions in good time, as well as simply just posting to it. Patients will be put off by unanswered Tweets, and social media users are by no means afraid of publically venting their frustrations, which could prove damaging for the practice reputation.
Consistency: Twitter followers are well known for easily growing tired of bursts and slumps in posting habits. Agreed, it can be difficult sometimes to find the time to take care of the growing number of digital communication channels that consumers are using these days. Time pressures often lead to bursts of posts being sent out in one go when someone suddenly realises nothing has been shared for some time, only to be followed by another long slump before anything goes out again. This sort of approach really must be avoided.
Available time: Anyone who uses Twitter will tell you that one Tweet every day has a far more positive effect than ten or twenty Tweets posted in one burst every month. If you feel that you won't have time to login to your Twitter account and post every day then consider using a social media management platform such as TweetDeck or Hootsuite. This will allow you to forward schedule posts in batches as and when you have the time. It is even possible with some scheduler platforms to prepare posts in a spreadsheet so that they can be uploaded in one hit. So if consistency and time are a concern to you as you consider setting up Twitter for your GP practice, at least you know there is a solution in that respect.
Who will post: Whoever you decide to recruit within the practice to be responsible for posting to your Twitter platform will either need to login to the main account and post from there, or use a social media management platform such as TweetDeck or Hootsuite as mentioned before. TweetDeck is Twitter's own platform and enables the management of multiple Twitter accounts in one place, as well as allowing multiple people to post to the same account. Hootsuite is an independent platform that, as well as enabling the same as TweetDeck, will allow the management of ALL the main social platforms, including Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.
If you have a number of budding Twitter posters in the practice, remember the consistency rule which applies to tone as well as timing. If you start releasing posts that conflict in tone of voice or style because different people have written them, followers will soon become confused about the brand identity of the practice.
Posting guidelines: You must take great care to avoid releasing anything based on the personal opinion of the person doing the posting. Remember, this is a GP practice communicating with its patients, not a personal conversation. A policy should be put in place before anyone is allowed to start posting, clearly stating the approach and tone of voice that are acceptable to the practice together with guidelines as to what is and is not suitable content.
For those who use Twitter personally, they will be used to being able to say what they feel and share what they want. It is therefore imperative that, as a professional organisation bound by compliance and regulation, you make it quite clear to your social media team that all posts must follow practice guidelines.
All of this considered, Twitter still remains a powerful and modern means of communication for the GP practice. So with your policy in place and your commitment to consistency set in stone, here comes your step by step guide to setting up and running your Twitter account together with a useful glossary of common terms that you will come across when using this platform.
Glossary of Twitter Terms
Twitter has its own language which you will need to get to know if you are going to use the platform. Here are some of the most popular terms, in alphabetical order.
Direct message (DM): If you'd prefer you can use this function to communicate privately with a follower. You get to use far more characters and no one but the two of you can see the exchange of dialogue.
Follower: Someone who has elected to view the posts you make on Twitter.
Like: When someone agrees with or likes what you have posted they will click the heart icon below it.
Mention: When another user mentions you by including your user name in their Tweet. This is sometimes to get your attention and more often than not they will expect a response. Other times it is merely to 'pat you on the back' or just give you a shout out.
Reply: When a user responds to your Tweet with their own message.
Retweet: When a user shares your Tweet with their own followers.
Tweet: The message you post on your Twitter account.
Twitter feed: All the Tweets posted by the users you are following, sorted into chronological order.
Getting Started: Setting up a GP Practice Twitter Account
Here's how to set up a Twitter account (you will find it easier to follow these steps on a PC rather than using the Twitter app on a mobile device):
- Follow this link to the sign-up page: https://twitter.com/signup
- Complete the full name, email address and password fields (as seen in example above). Bear in mind that the full name will appear on your profile page, so it is advisable to choose the name of your practice rather than the personal name of whoever is setting up or managing the account. The email address will be used to alert you when you have new followers and when someone has mentioned you, liked a Tweet or retweeted something you posted, so make sure it is accessible to whoever is managing the account.
- Once the fields are completed, click SIGN UP.
- You will see ENTER YOUR PHONE. It is a good idea to enter a phone number as a dual layer of security. It will need to be a mobile phone number but should belong to the practice rather than someone who works there because it may be used to recover your account should it be compromised or you get locked out. As part of the set up process, a verification code will be sent by text message to the phone number you enter. The phone number will not be displayed on the account. If you wish, although not advisable, you can skip this step and go straight onto choosing a username.
- Choose a username. Your Twitter username is your Twitter identity. It will allow other Twitter users to communicate with you by including it in their Tweets. You can change your user name at a later date if you decide to. Be prepared to try a few different names as many find that their first choice is already taken. Take a look at the suggestions that Twitter provides based on the full name you entered. You can choose one of these by clicking on it, or type in your own. You may need to add something, such as your location, to make it unique. You are not allowed spaces: only letters, numbers and underscore (_). Click NEXT.
- Click LET'S GO.
- You will receive an email asking you to confirm your email address in order to complete your Twitter account. Click on the CONFIRM NOW button.
Your account is now created and you are ready to start making it personal to your GP practice.
Personalising Your Twitter Account
Your Twitter account will ideally reflect your GP practice branding which means including your logo and any other identifying elements, such as an image of the practice. Here's how to personalise your account:
- Login to Twitter using either your username or email address and the password you selected when you set up the account.
- In the top far right hand corner you will see a 'Tweet' icon. To the left of that you will see your profile and settings icon. Click this and a drop down menu will appear. Click where you see your name with VIEW PROFILE underneath.
- Not far under this you will see EDIT PROFILE. Click this.
- You will then see a camera appear in the top section (header photo) and in the smaller box to the left (profile photo). Click on the respective cameras to add images.
- Header photo:
The header photo will appear in the large area across the top of your profile. A good image to use would be either an external or inside picture of your practice, or a photo of the practice team. Be mindful not to use images that show patients as you would need their permission to use them. Also be sure to obtain the permission of any staff featured in your image. Finally, ensure the picture is high quality, professionally taken if possible to create the very best impression for your practice. Size wise you will need the image to be 1500 x 1500 pixels in order to fit the space perfectly. Simply click the camera to search for an image on your computer.
- Profile photo:
This will appear in the smaller box to the left of the header image. Ideally you will use your practice logo for this. Again, just click on the camera to search for an image on your computer. Size wise you will need the image to be 400 x 400 pixels in order to fit the space perfectly.
- Profile description: Under the profile photo box you will see the full name you entered when you set up the account. If you wish, you can change this here. Under this name, you will see a box in which you can enter a description of your practice. You will need to stick to 140 characters including spaces and punctuation. This is very important as it will give followers a brief snapshot of what you offer, so make sure it is descriptive and to the point and that you include your key messages. Have a look at other GP practice Twitter accounts for inspiration, particularly the ones with large followings.
- Location: In the next box under profile description, enter your geographical location. Be specific but also be mindful that Twitter is a worldwide platform, so if you are located in a town or city with a name that also exists in another county or even country, make it clear as to which county or country your practice is situated in by adding it after the town or city, for example, 'Brentwood, Essex UK'
- Website: In the next box down, enter your website address. This will become a clickable link in your profile, so be sure to enter it accurately.
- Theme colour: The colour you choose here should fit in with your practice branding as it will be used for various elements of your profile, such as buttons, headings and your website link, etc. Just click in the box to choose.
- Birthday: The next box down is for entering a birthday. You can ignore this as it is not relevant for GP practices.
- Header photo:
Once you are finished, click SAVE CHANGES over to the right just under your header image.
Managing Your GP Practice Twitter Account
It is good practice, before you start using your Twitter account, to set your security parameters and your preferences concerning privacy, safety and notifications. Always keep in mind that a GP practice is a regulated entity which means that privacy and security must be taken exceptionally seriously, so whatever you can do to protect your practice and its patients, you should do so without hesitation. Here's what you need to do:
Click your profile and settings icon top right. This should now bear your GP practice logo or whatever you opted to use for your profile photo.
From the dropdown menu, click SETTINGS AND PRIVACY.
In this area you can change your contact details, email address, password, mobile number and set preferences for security, privacy and notifications.
Privacy and Safety
Click this to choose privacy and safety options. The following are most applicable to the GP practice:
'Protect my Tweets' - selecting this will mean your Tweets will not be seen publically, but only by those you choose to see them. This feature has its benefits, although can be time consuming to manage in practice as it means you will have to approve all new followers. If you do not recognise someone that turns out to be a patient, or someone looking to register at the practice and you fail to approve them, it could make things quite awkward and it may be considered an insult.
'Tweet location' will add a location to each Tweet. This feature is more geared towards private users who use Twitter to keep their followers informed as to where they are at any given time, although it will help local users to identify you.
'Photo tagging' is another private user oriented feature and doesn't really apply to the GP practice, although checking 'do not allow' is not a bad idea.
'Discoverability' assists people looking for your Twitter profile using your email address or phone number. If for example a patient is trying to find the practice on Twitter and hasn't been able to by typing in the name, then they can try again using the practice email address or phone number. Email address is checked by default and there is no reason to change this. The phone number however would be the mobile number that you used to set up the account (if you did), so just leave this unchecked.
'Direct messages' - if you select the first box, it means you will be able to receive messages from any Twitter user, whether you follow them or not. This could mean that you receive spam or irrelevant messages, however if you don't allow it then you may miss a message from a patient or prospective patient who you are not yet following.
Safety - check this box if you do not wish to read any Tweets from other users that may contain sensitive content. Your own content should not contain anything sensitive so there is no need to check the second box.
Under this section you can choose when to receive email notifications from Twitter. It is advisable, if you wish to keep track of who is following you and retweeting your posts, to keep everything under 'activity related to you and your Tweets' checked. Otherwise you will have to continuously check the account in order to monitor activity. The other two sections really are up to you and will depend on how many emails you wish to receive.
Under this section you can choose to not receive notifications from people you don't follow or who haven't confirmed their contact details with Twitter. This is a good idea as it will protect you from spam. Checking the quality filter will also help to filter the content you see.
You can import your email address book and use it to find Twitter users who you already know. If you have a database of patient email addresses then you could use this to help you find them on Twitter so that you can follow them. Following them will usually instigate a follow back, which will help you grow your practice following.
This is quite an important section for the GP practice. Firstly, checking the first box that concerns image descriptions is a good idea as it will give you the ability to describe images for the visually impaired. If you are posting images - which prove popular with Twitter users and aid engagement - then visually impaired patients should not miss out on the content.
Posting to your GP Practice Twitter Account
To post a Tweet, click the box in the top right hand corner that says 'Tweet'. A 'compose new Tweet' window will appear.
Click into the large white area and start typing. Remember, Tweets can only be 140 characters including spaces and punctuation and also including links to websites. Keep an eye on the character counter bottom right. You won't be able to post the Tweet if it exceeds the maximum character limit.
Under the text box there are four icons. The first one allows you to add an image or video. Simply click the camera to search for an image or video file on your computer and always remember that permission must be obtained to use any photos or videos featuring staff or patients.
The second one allows you to upload a GIF which is an animated image. Perhaps not something appropriate for the GP practice!
The third one allows you to include a poll in your Tweet. Simply type in a question and then add choices by clicking in the choice boxes and typing. You can add a minimum of 2 choices and a maximum of 4 and you can also decide on how long the poll will run, which can be between 5 minutes and 7 days. So for example, you could ask, 'Would it be useful if we were to introduce a Saturday morning surgery?' and add the choices, 'Yes', 'No' and 'Wouldn't affect me'.
The final icon allows you to add a location to your Tweet. If this is disabled in your settings, you can turn the function on by clicking the icon.
You don't have to use any of these icons of course, and can simply type content into the box, including a link to your practice website, an online form, a news article or to any other resource that you feel your patients would find useful.
Always think carefully about the type of content you are sharing and its suitability for your patients. Keep it relevant, and helpful.
Once you are finished and happy with your post, and have double checked it for spelling and grammar, simply click 'Tweet' in the bottom right hand corner to send it to your followers.
What to Post to your GP Practice Twitter Account
- Consider Confidentiality
- Stick to a strict posting policy
- Be consistent with tone of voice
- Aim to be helpful and approachable
It is imperative that great care is taken over what is posted on your GP practice Twitter account. Never, ever discuss anything personal with a patient on an open forum. Should they ask a question about test results or symptoms for example, be sure to politely direct them to an alternative method of contact that is private.
Set out a written policy as to what is and is not acceptable and ensure everyone with responsibility for posting is fully aware of it.
Always be 100 per cent certain in your mind before you post that what you are sharing will not cause offence; that it would be suitable for all age ranges and that it will not be in breach of confidentiality policies.
Tone of voice is very important. Remember, you are posting as the practice, and anyone you have given this responsibility to must always bear this in mind: it is not their own personal account or a platform for sharing personal opinion or informal messages.
All posts should work around practice values. If your approach as a practice is to appear friendly yet professional then your Tweets must follow this. The practice has a reputation to maintain and build, so anything that works against this must be avoided.
A good guideline for posts is to be helpful and relevant. Here are some examples:
Practice news: revised opening hours, newly introduced clinics, community or fundraising events, seasonal updates (e.g. flu jab clinic, travel clinic), support of public health campaigns, etc.
General information about the practice: available clinics, opening hours, patient participation group meetings and feedback, CQC scores, etc.
Calls to action: if you want to get your patients more involved in your participation group, use Twitter to invite new members and highlight the benefits. If you'd like patients to start making better use of your online forms to help save administration time and make things easier for them, post links to them with a quick explanation of how patients could benefit from using them.
Community news: anything happening in the local community, for example bazaars, artisan markets, craft fairs, newly opened local shops or services, etc. Basically anything that people in the local area could find interesting - it doesn't matter if it doesn't involve the practice - the aim is to be helpful to your local community.
Staff news: introduce new members of staff, advise about staff leaving or retiring or having welcomed a new baby, announce charity or community ventures that staff are involved in and ask for support, featured staff profiles, etc. Always be sure to obtain permission of any staff you are Tweeting about.
A certain degree of etiquette should be adopted when using Twitter. Here are some of the most important things to consider.
Responding to Tweets
When someone sends you a Tweet, you should receive an email notification if you have these switched on. The Tweet may be a question, a comment or a suggestion and should be responded to within a reasonable amount of time. You can use the button in the email to respond to the Tweet, or view it from your Twitter feed and click 'reply' under the Tweet.
When responding, be very careful to follow the same process and policy as you would when posting your own Tweets. Remember, this is a public platform and definitely not the place to have informal discussions. Always be polite and professional and never disclose any confidential information.
Acknowledging Retweets and Mentions
It is good practice to acknowledge when someone retweets your post or mentions you in a positive light. A simple thank you is often sufficient. You can reply to the Tweet in the same way as described above and say something like, 'Thank you for sharing our content' or 'Thank you for the mention'. This is a simple but effective way to boost engagement on Twitter.
If there are any negative comments then they should also be responded to tactfully. Usually a brief message saying something along the lines of 'Sorry to hear this. Please contact the practice directly so we can personally deal with it'. Of course you will need to tailor the response to the individual circumstances, but never, ever ignore anything because it could lead to frustrations being publically aired.
All in all, prevention is better than cure. If you have a solid complaints procedure in place and take steps to ensure patients are aware of how it works then hopefully they will refrain from using social platforms to air their grievances.
When to Post to your GP Practice Twitter Account
Anything between 1 and 3 posts per day is a reasonable level to aim for. Refrain from posting out of surgery hours because a precedent will be set. Social media users have a tendency to expect instant responses and it only takes a single response out of hours to have all your followers expecting a 24/7 service. So outline a policy for response times, and let your followers know what to expect.
Building your GP Practice Twitter Following
Once you have your Twitter account up and running, you will naturally want to start building a good following so that you have an audience for your Tweets. Here are some ideas to help you build your following:
- You cannot guarantee that everyone you follow will follow you back, however if the people know you or are relevant, i.e. they are patients or other associates of the practice or local businesses, charities, community services, health campaigns, etc., then they are likely to reciprocate the favour and become your followers. You can use the Twitter search function to locate other users by name or email address. Just click into the 'Search Twitter' box next to your profile image. Always check you are following the right person or business. You can also upload your email contact lists and search for users to follow that way.
- Follow people who follow other local service providers in your area. If they are interested in them, they could well be interested in you. Also check the 'who to follow' suggestions that Twitter makes for you on your home page.
- Let all your staff know that you are now on Twitter and ask them to follow you and where relevant, send Tweets to their followers to announce your arrival on the platform.
- Promote the account from your website and by using in-practice posters. Add the Twitter icon to your practice literature so that patients are aware you're on there. Let them know the advantages of following, i.e. keeping up to date with the latest practice news, etc.
- Find relevant posts and retweet and / or like them, and locate relevant users and mention them. This should instigate a sharing environment where everyone helps each other. Things like local health campaigns, local community and charity events are perfect. As we said before, aim to be helpful and keep everything relevant to the practice and its patients. To retweet or like a post, use the respective arrow or heart icons below it.
- Use hashtags. This will take a degree of research but you can start by looking at what is being used by health campaigners, local organisations and other GP practices. When you use a popular hashtag your post will appear in the feed for that hashtag, which could widen your audience. You can read more about the do's and don'ts of hashtags in this blog by Hootsuite.
Twitter is a powerful platform for GP practices seeking to engage and communicate with patients and prospective patients. Hopefully this guide has proved helpful and you feel confident to get started. Just remember to be mindful about professionalism and confidentiality - and to keep that dedication in check. Good luck with your Tweeting!